Gay rights: Equal protection under the law

How to understand the passage of Proposition 8, the California ballot measure which amends the state Constitution and bans gay marriage? How to comprehend the passage of similar measures in Florida and Arizona, as well as a measure in Arkansas intended to bar gay men and women from adopting children?

Consider the cognitive dissonance: America decisively elects its first African-American president, a stunning repudiation of the prejudice and discrimination which can be traced back to the laws of Jim Crow. And yet, an analysis of the vote supporting Proposition 8 found that 70 percent of black voters supported the ban and slightly more than a majority of Latino voters did as well. How to understand that these two groups do not see that the civil rights of gay people are inherently no different from the struggle for equality which is and has been their own?

What if Proposition 8 had been a ban on whites marrying people of color? How can the injustice of such a measure be any different from this attempt by a majority to trample on the rights of a minority?

In 1948, the California Supreme Court recognized marriage as a fundamental right and became the first state court in the country to strike down a law prohibiting interracial marriage. Legislation infringing on the right to marry, wrote the court, "must be based upon more than prejudice and must be free from oppressive discrimination." That language seems decidedly relevant today.

While social and religious conservatives may insist that gay marriage violates some fundamental belief system to which they subscribe — and can quote biblical scripture to support their position — is it not the function of the state to protect the rights of the few against the arbitrary dictates of the many?

Furthermore, what evidence do the proponents of 8 have which indicates that gays marrying represents a threat to either the fabric of society or the sanctity of marriage and the family? Are gay families any less loving? Are they less able to nurture and raise children should they so choose? Should they possess fewer rights because their sexual orientation is different from the majority? What, exactly, is it about gays living together, creating families, supporting one another, and possessing all the rights attributed to married couples which poses such a reflexive, restrictive response from so many people? After all, marriage as an institution for straights fails 50 percent of the time. How could gays marrying make it any worse?

Is it not obvious that gays being given a place in our diverse and multi-ethnic society is a fundamental civil rights issue? How can it not be? In every way it mirrors the Civil Rights Movement which began in the 1950s — a struggle that is still being waged today.

To pass measures across the nation barring gays from full membership in our society is the equivalent of the passage by the Supreme Court of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. That decision will forever be a stain on America's history for it ratified the insidious belief in separate but equal. And are we not now witnessing an unconscionable ratification of exclusionary propositions in state after state, all denying a group of Americans their full constitutional rights? Are state constitutions not now being amended to deny a group of people their rights rather than strengthened and buttressed in order to affirm them? It's unheard of and it is wrong.

It should matter not a whit that social and religious conservatives are uncomfortable with gay marriage or gays in general. In the same way that it no longer matters if whites are uncomfortable with miscegenation, or seeing blacks using public drinking fountains, or sitting at lunch counters, or riding in the front of the bus. Endless scripture or baroque rationales are completely irrelevant. Save them for Sunday morning or lengthy pamphlets, but not the ballot. It is a subject open to discussion but not open to a vote.

We are a nation of laws. We live by a Constitution which has as bedrock principles that all of us — no matter our color, ethnicity or sexual orientation — possess the rights of due process and equal protection under the law. All of us. Not all of us less 10 or 100 or 1,000. No one stands outside the circle. Not in America. Not today.

As a people, the separation between the abrogation of the rights of gays and our own rights being denied is far less than six degrees. This is a fundamental truth. As a fair-minded and decent people, how can we look at what is occurring to gays in our society and not speak out in protest?

What is taking place, with the support of pastors and congregations, legislators and voters, in some 30 states across our union, is wrong and should not stand — in the same way that despicable laws designed to exclude people of color or religion have been relegated to an infamous past.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he had a dream — a dream of equality. Know that gays do as well.

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